I am a big defender of negative reviews. I believe they are valuable to readers because people should be empowered to choose and purchase books they predict they will like, taking into the pros and cons of those books, presented by other readers. And I believe they are valuable to authors because the negative reviews bring balance to the positive ones; that is, no one trusts a book that has only 5 star reviews. At that point, it’s just marketing, and all the glowing reviews are meaningless. (I’ve written more extensively about that here.) In this sense, negative reviews are not “mean.” They’re actively helpful.
However, one strange defense I often see of negative reviews is that they are “constructive criticism for the author.” And this simply is not true.
Negative Reviews Are For Readers, Not Writers
First, reviews are not for authors. Many reviewers, whether bloggers, booktubers, bookstagrammers, etc., in fact spend a lot of time pleading with authors not to read reviews and to stay out of reviewers’ spaces. Too many authors react poorly to readers saying they didn’t enjoy their writing, and then they start insulting them online and things spiral out of control. But, also, most reviewers don’t review their own reviews as being addressed to the author in any way. The book is finished; the author isn’t going to change it. The review is just mean to discuss their own feelings, invite authors to say what they thought of the book, and maybe offer other readers insight into whether they think the book is worth picking up.
A Book Review Is a Different Genre From Editorial Feedback
Second, a book review and “constructive criticism” are entirely different things. I believe every reader’s opinion of a book is valid. Barring things like academic monographs, the intended audience of a book is the general public; the general public, therefore, should be able to “get” it enough to have thoughts about it. However, being a reader with an opinion, even an well-informed one based on years of reading and perhaps literature classes and other qualifications, is not the same thing as being an editor. A review with someone’s personal reaction to a book is simply not going to be worded the same way actual “constructive criticism” from someone like a developmental editor, a literary agent, or a fellow author would be.
For instance, if I am writing a book review, I might write something like, “The romance in this book wasn’t convincing to me.” I could be a bit more specific and say something like, “The romance in this book wasn’t engaging. The two main characters barely spoke to each other, and I wasn’t convinced they really knew each other.” Sure . . . an author might be able to do something with that statement (if, uh, they could actually revise the book and it wasn’t already printed and finished), but it’s still kind of vague. It comes down to the broad advice: Make the characters talk to each other more.
Someone who was actually trying to give constructive criticism the author could work with while revising, however, would likely be even more specific. What scenes should the characters talk more in? Is there a conversation that could be expanded? A specific place in the book a new conversation could be added? Should the characters meet earlier in the book? Should the whole middle of the book be revised so they go on a trip together instead of travelling separately? And is there something specific they could talk about? Is there a reason to believe they would bond over boating, and the author missed this opportunity in the first draft?
I’m not saying that book reviewers couldn’t give detailed suggestions like this. For example, some reviewers are, in fact, also freelance developmental editors and would have the expertise and insight to do this. However, they generally don’t because a book review is simply not “constructive criticism.” It’s a summary of the reviewer’s personal reaction to a book and perhaps a reflection on how they think other readers would react to the book; it’s not a summary of how, why, and where the book could be improved. A book review is a specific genre of writing, and its purpose is not to give writing advice to an author.